Teaching About the Ideas Trait: Finding a Topic

“I think working with ideas is like music. I love how Mozart’s pieces have notes that weave in and out and around each other to create perfect harmonies. I think that all great composers were probably good writers, too.”

~Makita, grade 8

This article is excerpted from Traits of Writing: The Complete Guide for Middle School by Ruth Culham.

Students who have been fed a steady diet of teacher-generated prompts often flounder when asked to choose a topic of their own. Finding their own topic means thinking, and many students would rather the teacher do the thinking for them.

Our students will never get better at finding topics unless we provide them with ample opportunities to try. So strike a balance between providing students with topics and asking them to find topics on their own. Finding their own topics will be harder for them, of course. But, in time, they'll discover that it's far more satisfying-and therefore more motivating-to revise and edit a piece of writing based on their own idea than someone else's.

If your classroom is filled with long-faced students asking, "What should I write about?" it's time to teach them how to look within themselves to discover their own ideas for writing. We want to shift their thinking away from "writing right" to writing well.

Key Quality: Finding a Topic

Many students think that if they haven’t discovered a spaceship in their backyard or ridden an alpaca in Uruguay, they have nothing interesting to say. But many good topics for writing stem from normal, everyday events. How students bring their own, original spin to those events is what makes their writing special. Use the following Think About to expand students’ notions about selecting a topic.

Think About: Have I chosen a topic that I really like? Do I have something new to say about this topic? Am I writing about what I know and care about? Have I gathered enough information about it so that I’m ready to write?


Distribute copies of the Think About. Ask students to clear their minds and come up with a cool invention they could use at school—something that would make life easier, less stressful, and/or more fun. Some ideas:

  • A homework machine
  • An automatic essay writer
  • A bully-proof force field
  • A remote control for your teacher
  • The ultimate hall pass that transports you somewhere fun
  • A cleaning machine for backpacks and lockers
  • A flavor and texture enhancer for cafeteria food

Once they come up with their topic, have them spend five minutes (and only five minutes) writing about their inventions in detail and, if they like, illustrating them. When they’re finished, share the following example with students and have them share theirs.

Here he comes. That kid who scares the daylights out of everyone. He kicks, he hits, and he spits, and is just disgusting to be around. I know he must be lonely and need friends, but it’s hard to be his friend when he acts so mean all the time. Oh no. He’s coming right over my direction. I better activate my new, Bully-Proof Force Field. Here it goes; I hope it works. BZZZZZZ. I can feel the energy all around me now. And here he goes, trying to kick me, but his leg hits the invisible force field and he is thrown backwards. As he stumbles to get back on his feet, he throws a punch that is also repelled. Now he’s shaking his head and leaving. Good thing. According to the directions, the Bully-Proof Force Field only works for one minute.


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